Risen to Love His Own

The Surprising Mercies of Easter

Our tired, sinful world has never seen a surprise so momentous as the one that spread from the tomb on Easter Sunday. “The dead stayed dead in the first century with the same monotonous regularity as they do [today],” Donald Macleod writes (The Person of Christ, 111). No one, in any age, has been accustomed to resurrection.

To the disciples, it mattered little that their Lord had already given away the ending (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). The resurrection of Jesus Christ — heart beating, lungs pumping, brain firing, legs walking — could be nothing less than a surprise. The greatest surprise our world has ever seen.

Pay attention to the resurrection narratives, however, and you may find yourself surprised at how Jesus surprises his people. He does not run from the tomb shouting, “I’m risen!” (as we may have expected). In three separate stories, in fact — with Mary, with Peter, and with the two disciples on the Emmaus road — he does not reveal himself immediately. He waits. He lingers. He hides, even. And then, in profoundly personal ways, he surprises.

Some of us woke up this Easter in desperate need of this same Jesus to offer a similar surprise. We declare today that he is risen, that he is risen indeed. But for one reason or another, we may find ourselves stuck in the shadows of Saturday. Perhaps some sorrow runs deep. Or some old guilt gnaws. Or some confusion has invaded the soul. Perhaps our Lord, though risen, seems hidden.

Sit for a moment in these three stories, and consider how the Lord of the empty tomb still loves to surprise his people. As on the first Easter, he still delights to trade our sorrow for joy, our guilt for forgiveness, our confusion for clarity.

Sorrow Surprised by Joy

Maybe, this Sunday, some long sadness seems unmoved by the empty tomb. Maybe the Easter sun seems to have stopped just below the horizon of some darkened part of life — some love lost, some long and aching wait. Maybe you remember Jesus’s words, “Your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20), but you still feel the sorrow, still look for the joy.

Stand at the tomb with Mary Magdalene. Others have come and gone, but she waits, weeping (John 20:11). She has seen the stone rolled away, the absent grave, and the angelic entourage of her risen Lord — and now, Jesus himself stands near her. But though she sees him, she doesn’t see him. “She did not know that it was Jesus” (John 20:14). She mourns before the Lord of holy joy, not knowing how soon her sorrow will flee. And for a few moments more, Jesus waits.

He draws her out with a question: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” (John 20:15). She offers her reply, supposing she speaks to a gardener. And then, in a moment, with a word, the mask comes off. Shadows break, sun rises, sorrow makes its sudden happy turn. How? “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’” (John 20:16). One word, one name, and this Gardener blooms flowers from her fallen tears. “Rabboni!” she cries — and cries no more (John 20:16).

Unlike Mary, you know your Lord is risen. Even still, for now, you may feel bent and broken. Seeing Jesus, but not seeing him. Knowing he lives, but not knowing where he is. Maybe even hearing his voice, but supposing you hear another’s. Dear saint, the risen Christ does not stand idly by while his loved ones grieve. He may linger for the moment, but he lingers near enough to see your tears and hear your cries — near enough to speak your name and surprise your sorrow with joy.

Keep waiting, and he will speak — sooner or later, here or in heaven. And until then, he is not far. Even if hidden, he is risen, and the deepest sorrow waits to hear his word.

Guilt Surprised by Forgiveness

Or maybe, for you, sorrow is only a note in a different, darker song. You have sinned — and not in a small way. The words of your mouth have shocked you; the work of your hands has undone you. You feel as if you had carried the soldiers’ nails. And now it seems that not even Easter can heal you.

Sit in the boat with Peter. He knows his Lord is risen — and indeed, he has even heard hope from Jesus himself. “Peace be with you,” the Master had told his disciples (John 20:19). But that “you” was plural. Peter needed something more, something personal, to wash away Good Friday’s stains.

“Jesus still delights to trade our sorrow for joy, our guilt for forgiveness, our confusion for clarity.”

And so Jesus stands on the shore — risen, hidden, and again with a question: “Children, do you have any fish?” (John 21:5). These are words to awaken memory (Luke 5:1–4), “yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus” (John 21:4). No, not yet. He will allow Peter to feel the night’s empty nets a few moments longer, and then the surprise will come. And so he reveals himself, this time not with a name but with fish — many fish, actually (John 21:6). Then, after feeding his men, he leads Peter in personal repentance and, as if all is forgotten, calls him afresh: “Follow me” (John 21:19).

That Jesus should turn our sorrow into joy is one of Easter’s greatest wonders. But perhaps greater still is that he should turn our guilt into innocence — that he should address our most sinful, shameful moments so personally, that he should wash our souls as humbly and tenderly as he washed his disciples’ feet. Yet so he does.

The process can take some time, however. We may not feel his forgiveness immediately, and he does not always mean us to. He sometimes hides for some moments or some days. Yet as he does, he prepares the scene for a surprise so good we too may feel like leaping into the sea (John 21:7). Our Lord is here, bringing grace and mercy; we must go to him.

Confusion Surprised by Clarity

Or maybe you find neither sorrow nor sin afflicting you this Easter, but rather another kind of thorn, a pain that can pierce deep enough to drive you mad: confusion. Life doesn’t make sense. Logic fails. God’s ways seem not just mysterious but labyrinth-like. Who can untangle these knots or find a way through this maze?

Walk with the two disciples toward Emmaus. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” you hear them say (Luke 24:21). Yes, had hoped. No more. Three nails and a spear stole the breath from that dream. Now all that’s left is confusion, a body and blood and a burial of all that seemed good and right and true. If not Jesus, then who? Then how? We had thought he was the one.

But then “the one” himself “drew near and went with them” (Luke 24:15). Again he asks a question: “What is this conversation that you are holding?” (Luke 24:17). And again he conceals himself: “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). So they walk; so they talk; so they spill their confusion all along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Yes, they have heard his body was gone, have heard even a report of his rising (Luke 24:23–24). But still, they just can’t make sense of it all.

But oh, how Jesus can. So, with a swift and tender rebuke, a lesson in the Scriptures, and a face revealed over broken bread, he picks up their shattered thoughts and arranges them in a vision of startling, stunning clarity. Then “he vanished” (Luke 24:31), taking all their confusion with him. “Did not our hearts burn within us?” they ask each other (Luke 24:32). Christ had risen, and the clarity they could not imagine had walked with them, talked with them, and loved them into the light.

Our hearts today may brim with questions, some that seem unanswerable. But the resurrected Jesus knows no unanswerable questions. He can solve every riddle in every corner of every human heart — even if, for the moment, he walks beside us incognito.

Our Final Surprise

We live today in an in-between land. Jesus is risen, but we don’t yet see him. Jesus lives, but we haven’t yet touched the mark of the nails in his hands. If we are his, however, then one day we will. And these stories give us reason to expect on that day a final, climactic surprise.

If hearing Jesus’s word by faith can lift the heaviest heart, what sorrow can withstand his audible voice and the new name he will give to us (Revelation 2:17)? If even now we taste the relief of sins forgiven and condemnation gone, what will happen when he puts a white robe around our shoulders and renders sin impossible? And if we have moments here of bright clarity, then what will come when the mists lift altogether, when Truth himself stands before us, and when all deception disappears like a bad dream?

Then we will see what a risen Christ can do. His dealings with Mary, with Peter, with the Emmaus disciples — these are but the fringes of his power, the outskirts of his ways. So keep waiting, dear Christian. At the right time, he will speak your name. He will appear on the shoreline of your long-repeated prayers. He will walk with you on the road of confusion and loss until you reach a better table, and in the breaking of the bread you will see his face.